The Academy’s 1964 Report on Homosexuality

By Logan Heiman, Digital Collections Manager, and Paul Theerman, Director

When the New York Academy of Medicine published its 1964 report in its Bulletin,[1] it followed a salvo of other reports sounding the alarm about “the problem of homosexuality.” The committee’s findings, reported in the New York Times and other outlets, made plain the Academy’s position on the issue: “homosexuality is indeed an illness. The homosexual is an emotionally disturbed individual who has not acquired a normal capacity to develop satisfying heterosexual relationships.” The committee’s attention to homosexuality arose from its concern about a perceived connection between homosexuality and two other phenomena it had previously studied—the proliferation of “salacious literature,” as stories with gay characters became more and more visible; and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Committee members linked several factors to the emergence of homosexual traits in early childhood, many of them related to parenting practices, including “neglect, rejection, overprotection, [and] overindulgence.”

The report also struck a harsh note against efforts by gay and lesbian activists to promote acceptance over tolerance, prescribing psychotherapy as offering “the greatest probability of benefit.” The Committee on Public Health offered improved sex education as another needed intervention, citing society’s “preoccupation with sex as a symbol” as a challenge to implementing this recommendation.

Excerpt from Barbara Gittings’s editorial
rebuking the Academy’s report.
The Ladder: A Lesbian Review 8(11) (August 1964).

In its immediate aftermath, as well as in the following years, the report drew sharp criticism and condemnation from gay and lesbian activist groups and medical professionals. In June 1964, the Daughters of Bilitis, the United States’ first political and civil rights organization for lesbians, strongly rebuked the findings of the report, writing in a June 13, 1964, letter “to express our disappointment in noting that a report so widely publicized, and originating with so reputable a group as yours, offered so little substantiation for the claims made.”[2]

A decade later, Dr. William Ober wrote to Dr. James McCormack of the Committee on Public Health asking the New York Academy of Medicine to host a conference based on changing public attitudes regarding homosexuality and the views of doctors who “had to revise their thinking.” No evidence exists to suggest the committee responded to this request. But in the course of that decade came the Stonewall riots, in June/July 1969, protesting police aggression against the LGBTQ+ community. Professional opinions changed. Famously, Dr. John E. Fryer (1937–2003), disguised as “Dr. Henry Anonymous,” addressed the 1972 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association to share the challenges he faced as a gay psychiatrist. His testimony, as well as the work of pioneering psychological researcher, Evelyn Hooker, had an effect. In 1973 the APA, under the leadership of NYAM Fellow Alfred M. Freedman (1917–2011), removed “homosexuality” as an illness in its authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a move hailed as “the single most important event in the history of what would become the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement.”[3]

Rainbow colors symbolize NYAM’s commitment to all people in its 175th year, expressed here on the Academy building entrance at its Access: Health event, June 7, 2022.

Since the time of the report, the medical community has increasingly “de-medicalized” gayness.[4] The Academy has itself taken steps to become a more open, equity-focused institution. During Pride Month 2021 we looked at our own history in “Virtual Visit: From the LGBTQ+ Archives.” For this year’s Pride Month, NYAM formally disavows the 1964 report on homosexuality. In an official statement, NYAM President Dr. Judith Salerno wrote, “The report was incorrect and perpetuated views that were not supported by science, and we recognize that NYAM’s inaction on addressing its content is shameful. It has taken us since 1964 to publicly acknowledge this report and we apologize for the hurt that this report, and our silence, has inflicted on the LGBTQIA+ community.” Read the full statement here.


[1]Homosexuality: A Report by the Committee of Public Health, The New York Academy of Medicine,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 40(7) (July 1964): 576–80. The article notes the committee’s approval of the report on May 11, 1964.

[2] The letter was reprinted in The Ladder: A Lesbian Review immediately following Gittings’s editorial.

[3] A concise historical article is Jack Drescher, “Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality,” Behavioral Sciences 5 (December 2015): 565–75; a more popular account is Ray Levy Uyeda, “How LGBTQ+ Activists Got ‘Homosexuality’ Out of the DSM,” JSTOR Daily, May 26, 2021, accessed June 8, 2022. For Freedman’s role, see “Alfred Freedman, a Leader in Psychiatry, Dies at 94,” The New York Times, April 20, 2011. Sue Hyde, LGBTQ activist and organizer, provided the assessment quoted in the obituary.

[4] Resistance in the medical community to the APA diagnostic change was long-lived. In 1976, a group of psychiatrists met at NYAM, though not under its auspices, to promote that homosexuality was an indicator of mental illness. Gay activists “zapped” them with disruptive demonstrations, recounted in John D’Emilio, “Zapping the New York Academy of Medicine, April 6, 1976,” Outhistory: It’s About Time!, n.d., accessed June 8, 2022. Even in 2002, Dr. Jack Drescher, chair of the APA’s Committee on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues, noted that “every year, we get a group of people who . . . ask for homosexuality to be put back in the manual. . . . They’re, interestingly, the only group who does it. Every other group wants their diagnoses taken out . . . .” Drescher is quoted in Robert DiGiacomo, “Dr. H. Anonymous ‘Instant cure’ recalled: Being gay was an illness 30 years ago,” AGLP Newsletter, 28(3) (August 2002): 16–18 (reprinted from the Philadelphia Gay News), accessed June 8, 2022.

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